Bulking up the home gym

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Home is where the heart is. It's also where you'll increasingly find a gym to work that heart, along with abs, lats and every other body part that can benefit from the lubrication of regular exercise.

According to the National Sporting Goods Association, home-gym equipment racked up $4.7 billion in sales in 2003.

Treadmills are the runaway favorite purchase, with annual sales topping $2.5 billion. But many people don't stop there. They build fully appointed, and occasionally regal, workout rooms complete with stationary bike, stair climber, rower, multistation exercise machines, free weights, medicine balls, mirrored walls, televisions and more.

"It would not be unusual to see someone deck out a home facility for $15,000 to $20,000," says Ron Arp, spokesman for the Nautilus Group in Vancouver, Wash., adding that "as a company we are trying to move fitness out of the garage and into the family room."

What Arp means is that companies like Nautilus today design high-end exercise machines that are easy on the eyes and almost can be thought of as calorie-burning pieces of furniture.

There are, however, homeowners who prefer heavy-duty, commercial-grade hardware, which doesn't come cheap, either.

Jason Hadeed, co-owner of Elite Athlete Training Systems in Rockville, trains clients and helps outfit home gyms. He has a few customers who insisted upon buying the same brand treadmill used by the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens football teams, even though they cost about $12,000 apiece.

(Another client with deeper pockets, Hadeed says, chose to fulfill his fitness dreams by building a replica of the Washington Wizards' practice basketball court.)

The urge to splurge is something Hadeed cautions against, however. "I'm a big advocate of keeping it simple," he says.

Hadeed often suggests starting with a basic set of dumbbells and weights, then gradually adding more elaborate equipment as the need arises.

A common mistake is to go on a start-up-gym buying spree. That's how many a Bowflex winds up turning into an expensive coat rack. Buyer beware: The resale market is notoriously weak.

"Equipment depreciates very quickly," says Hadeed. "It's like a car."

Jay Barnett, a 42-year-old dermatologist from Potomac who uses Hadeed as his personal trainer, underwent a lifestyle change thanks to the addition of a home gym. The tab came to about $3,500.

"I wanted to keep the cost down," explains Barnett, who admits to having had reservations about his commitment to shaping up.

On the other hand, he knew his only chance of getting into an exercise routine would be if it entailed traveling no farther than the basement: "The convenience for me is important," he explains. "I'm working all the time. I don't have time to go to a gym."

Ever since he was a kid, Barnett has been more interested in books than biceps. Although there's a health club next to his office, he only stopped in about once a week.

His wife, Debra, is more athletically inclined. Seven years ago, concerned about her husband's inactivity and family history of heart disease, she bought him a session with a personal trainer who makes house calls.

Jay got hooked, enough to start buying his own equipment.

He has since added 15 pounds of muscle and works out at home three times a week with Hadeed. Debra, 47, uses the basement gym, but also takes low-impact aerobic classes, partly for the sociability factor.

"It meets my need for having people around me to motivate me," she says.

The risks of working out at home include boredom and the tendency not to push oneself. There's also the distraction potential of children, ringing telephones and bags of potato chips in the kitchen.

Those blessed with the requisite self-discipline can save more than the drive time to and from a health club -- they can also avoid the aggravation that comes with going to the gym during peak hours.

Bill Schultheis would hit his health club in Bel Air at 5:30 a.m. three days a week to avoid waiting in line for machines. When he and his wife recently moved to Whiteford, they decided to drop their club memberships in favor of a do-it-yourself home gym.

The couple found a store that carries the identical Life Fitness equipment they used at their club. Schultheis, 57, says he spent $6,500 on a recumbent bike, elliptical trainer, multi-station cable machine and other items. He's thinking of adding a rowing machine.

Spared the expense of club dues, he figures his investment should pay for itself in about five years.

"It was really a no-brainer for us," says Schultheis. "I was amazed how affordable the professional home equipment is."

The market is largely being driven by baby boomers like Schultheis. For example, a National Sporting Goods Association survey showed about 40 percent of all treadmills are sold to people between the ages of 45 and 64.

Traditionally, those users limited themselves to a piece or two of cardio equipment, says David Nees, president of Fitness Resource Inc., in Fairfax, Va., which has 10 stores in the Baltimore-Washington area selling multiple brands of equipment. Now a new generation of sophisticated cable machines provide a user-friendly alternative to clunky barbells.

"People are beginning to realize they need to add strength," says Nees. "It's a key component in weight control. It's not just jumping on the treadmill."

Nautilus' Ron Arp predicts that equipment manufacturers will soon sell home-gym packages as a way to simplify the decision-making process for consumers. He foresees home builders someday offering installed gyms as a design option.

Debra Barnett can speak to the advantages of having more than a pingpong table in the basement.

"I have a brand new husband," she says, "with low cholesterol and great biceps."

Tips for navigating the jungle of home gyms

A 2003 study by the consumer research firm American Sports Data found that one-third of all U.S. households contained gym equipment. The bad news is that in 20 percent of those homes, nobody was using the equipment. Before buying, do some homework.

* Know thyself: How often will you really use the equipment? Will you get a return on this investment? If you're not sure, start with small, inexpensive items like barbells and build from there. If you are sure, it may make more sense to buy a $1,000 step machine rather than a cheaper, less durable model.

* Know thy space: What size room do you have? People have squeezed fitness equipment into bathrooms and even furnace closets. You can maximize tight spaces by measuring ahead of time and buying compact equipment.

* Know thy warranty: A lot of fitness equipment requires periodic professional maintenance. Check not only the warranty length (treadmills can vary from 90 days to a lifetime guarantee), but whether it includes free, in-home service.

John Harris, of Fitness Equipment Solutions in Belcamp, repairs all kinds of home-gym equipment. Infrequent use can be as damaging to machinery as overuse. "A lot of times someone doesn't use something for a year," says Harris, "then they jump back on it" and it breaks.

* Shop around: There is a large variety of equipment. A specialty store may carry two dozen treadmill models. Some, for example, offer more cushion for runners with bad knees than others. Similarly, some weight machines can be ordered with lighter plates for senior-citizen users.

Don't overlook used equipment. Trainer Jason Hadeed outfitted most of his home gym with bargains found at yard sales and health-club closeouts. Expensive doesn't necessarily mean better.

"What it comes down to," says Hadeed, "is the best piece of equipment is the equipment you'll use."

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